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‘Was I able to cope?’ – the 45 minutes that changed everything

July 9th, 2024

Aidan Walsh is preparing for his second Olympics after taking 14 months away from boxing [Getty Images]

Aidan Walsh had 45 minutes to decide.

Would he try to qualify for a second Olympic Games in a sport he had recently quit?

The clock was ticking.

“I was done with boxing,” the Belfast fighter, 27, told BBC Sport NI.

“I’d walked away from the sport and was looking for jobs.

“I was out of the ring for 14 months… didn’t do one bit of training… walked the dog, that was probably about the height of it.

“Boxing was history for me.”

Then came a phone call that would change everything.

“There was no real spark that reignited my passion for boxing,” he says. “It was just a phone call. Would I be interested in going to the Olympics?

“I said ‘if I put my mind to it, I probably could’. I didn’t know the deadline for getting my name in was less than an hour away.

“So when I heard that, I went and got a bit of advice and stuff and said ‘I’ll give it a go’, and I put my name back in the hat.

“The rest is history.”

The phone call happened about a year ago, not long after Walsh’s sister Michaela had qualified for her second Olympics at the European Games in Poland.

At the same tournament, Dean Walsh – no relation – had failed to qualify at light-middleweight. Had the Wexford boxer done so then Aidan Walsh would never have received that phone call, and there would have been no talk of a comeback.

“It was in the space of 45 minutes that I had to make a decision of what I wanted to do and sometimes those decisions can be the best ones,” he says.

Walsh was at a low ebb. He had fallen out of love with boxing and his last fight had been a defeat at the 2023 Irish National Championships. He was suffering with injuries to his hand and ankle that required multiple surgeries.

The Olympic bronze medallist was also struggling with his mental health – and that was his biggest consideration when he made his decision.

“That was it, really – that’s what it came down to. Was I able to cope and was I able to sustain myself?

“A lot of factors come into play. Do you come back and put all the time and effort in and not qualify?

“Or do you come back and put all that pressure on yourself, qualify and then have to go through it all again? Mental health was at the front of it all.”

‘Anything else is a bonus’

So the hard work began all over again.

A lover of Chinese food, Walsh had to build his way back into physical shape for the first World Qualification Tournament in Italy in May.

“I don’t know about giving those Chinese meals up,” he laughs. “I was still eating them.

“I always kept myself in good shape, even though I didn’t train. I lost a lot of muscle. That was probably the hardest – building that back up.

“It wasn’t too long before I got back to myself and found myself in the ring again.”

Walsh lost in the second round of the first qualifier, which meant he had one final opportunity in Bangkok in June.

In the last-chance saloon, Walsh would face six bouts in eight days.

And with one place remaining, he used his experience to clinch a split-decision win.

“I think Bangkok was probably the toughest experience in my boxing career but, looking back, it would be my proudest moment in sport – to be able to come back and to be able to compete back-to-back in six fights in eight days,” he says.

“That is something that took a lot of mental strength. It took a lot of resilience.”

Walsh is now preparing for a second Olympic Games – one that a year ago wasn’t on his radar.

“Paris is a bonus,” he says. “My goal was always to be an Olympian. I achieved that.

“My goal was to be an Olympic medallist and get my name in the history books of the boxing greats from Ireland. I’ve done that.

“To be a two-time Olympian with my sister, I’ve done that. So anything else is a bonus.”

Aidan Walsh and Michaela WalshAidan Walsh and Michaela Walsh

Aidan won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics and both he and sister Michaela won gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games [Getty Images]

As he prepares for Paris, Walsh seems at peace with himself.

“I’ve been very open about the support network I’ve had and I’m just very grateful, because for me to be here and to compete, it takes work,” he says.

“I have to meet people daily and weekly and do regular things to keep me on the right track.

“I like to think I’m always a good trainer and train hard, but for me there is a big emphasis on mental health – getting my mind right, enjoying the process and not putting myself under too much pressure.”

Walsh speaks openly about what he has gone through and has a simple message to anyone who is struggling with their mental health.

“One thing I would say is that speaking up is strength,” he says. “The support is there, the support is always there, but if you don’t speak then no-one knows.

“For a long time I didn’t speak and no-one knew. You’re around people and you’re putting on a persona that you’re happy and you’re enjoying it when you’re not and inside you are struggling.

“It’s very, very important for athletes to use their support network because it is there and it is available, but reaching out and speaking up is the key.”

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this story, BBC Action Line has links to organisations that can offer help and advice.

This content was originally sourced and posted at Yahoo Canada Sports – Sports News, Scores, Rumours, Fantasy Games, and more »
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